Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. The ‘Nicci French’ writing team of Nicci Gerard and Sean French have had a great deal of critical and popular success, both with their standalones and with their Frieda Klein series. It’s time this feature included one of their novels, so let’s do that today and turn the spotlight on Blue Monday, the first Frieda Klein novel.
In 1987, five-year-old Joanna Vine and her nine-year-old sister Rose ‘Rosie’ are walking home from school. Rosie is a few feet ahead of her sister, but the two stay more or less together. Then, Rosie ducks into a sweet shop to pick out some treats. She is first annoyed, then afraid when Joanna doesn’t join her. She gets home, only to discover that Joanna isn’t there, either. A wide and thorough search doesn’t yield anything, not even a body, but a massive effort is made. Then, gradually, interest in the case fades as no new leads turn up. Eventually, nearly everyone is resigned to the fact that Joanna is dead.
Twenty-two years later, Frieda Klein is a London psychologist who’s been put in a difficult position. Her mentor, Reuben McGill, seems to be suffering from what’s often called ‘burnout.’ In fact, one of his new clients, Alan Dekker, threatens to make an official complaint after one disastrous session with McGill. In order to help Dekker (and, truth be told, head off the complaint), Klein agrees to see the client herself.
Dekker has lots of anxieties and other issues that have impacted both his marriage and his work life, and he and Klein start to address them. Bit by bit, he tells her of the dream he’s had about having his own son – a boy who looks like him. So far, he and his wife, Carrie, haven’t had any children, and Dekker doesn’t want to adopt. Dekker and Klein start the painful work of making connections between things that have happened in the past, and Dekker’s current psychological state. It turns out that in part, he’s dealing with the issue of having been adopted himself.
Then, four-year-old Matthew Faraday goes missing. DCI Malcolm Karlsson and his team begin a thorough investigation, but nothing turns up. The only case that bears any resemblance to this one is the Joanna Vine case, but that was long ago, and the two children were different sexes and taken in different enough circumstances that it’s just as likely they were unrelated. Still, Karlsson starts to look into the older case again.
When Klein learns of Matthew’s abduction, she begins to worry, first sub-consciously, then actively, that there might be a connection between Matthew’s disappearance and her work with Alan Dekker. She contacts Karlsson, and the two begin to co-operate. Little by little, and each with a different expertise, Klein and Karlsson find out the truth about the two disappearances, how they are connected, and what’s behind it all.
Klein is a psychologist, and the solution to the story involves a great deal of psychology. So one important element in the novel is the way in which these professionals work, and the powerful role psychology plays in crime. Readers follow along as Klein works with her clients, supervises fledgling psychologist Jack Dargan, and manages paperwork and case notes. There are also some interesting questions of professional ethics. For instance, just how much should Klein tell Karlsson about her sessions with Dekker, which are supposed to be private? And should they use that information? It’s not at all straightforward.
Psychology plays an important role in the solution to the mystery too. Both Klein and Karlsson have to make sense of what people say and don’t say, how they react, and what they remember without being aware of those memories. Just as one example, in one scene, they’re working with Rose Teale to try to help her remember as much as possible about anyone who might have been nearby on the day her sister went missing. On the surface, she doesn’t have much to offer (it was long ago and she was a child), and can’t be of much help. But Klein and Karlsson work together to trigger her hidden memories, and it turns out to be a very useful undertaking.
Another important element in this novel is the devastating impact of abduction on the lives of families and loved ones. The Vine family and the Faraday family suffer unimaginable losses, and we see the lasting effects on them. There’s Rose’s guilt about her sister’s disappearance, and her sense of fear. And there’s her mother’s guilt about letting the girls walk home alone. That’s eerily similar to Andrea Faraday’s sense of guilt about not preventing her son’s disappearance. It sounds cliché, but it’s accurate to say that these families are torn apart by what happens.
In that sense, this novel is very sad. Those who prefer not to read novels in which children are abducted will want to know that that’s a theme in this story. That said, though, I can say without spoiling the story that there isn’t gory violence.
This isn’t a story where the ending is tied up neatly, as the saying goes. Readers who prefer the ‘bad guy’ to be led away in handcuffs will notice this. Still, we do learn the truth about both disappearances. And for the police who investigated both cases, there is a sense of satisfaction that they’ve gotten answers.
And there are some slightly lighter touches in the novel. For instance, during one of Klein’s sessions with Dekker, they’re having an intense conversation when the ceiling bursts and a man falls through. He turns out to be Josef Morozov, a Ukrainian builder who’s been doing repairs in the rooms above. He excuses himself, promising to come back in a few minutes. Meanwhile, Dekker has a look at the damage:
‘Does it look serious,’ said Frieda.
Alan pulled a face. ‘Lucky I’m not at work.’
‘Are you a builder?’
‘I work for the housing department,’ he said. ‘I’d have something to say about that if I was at work.’’
Morozov soon returns, and the damage gets repaired. His presence in the novel doesn’t solve the mystery, but he is an interesting character, and he proves to be helpful.
It’s also worth mentioning the character of Frieda Klein. Readers who prefer not to read about badly damaged protagonists who can’t function will be pleased to know that Klein isn’t like that. Fans of this series will know that Klein has her own past pain – some of it deep. She sometimes deals with insomnia, and she’s certainly imperfect and, at times, vulnerable. But she is functional, intelligent, skilled and insightful.
Blue Monday is a psychological mystery that links past and present, and depicts the damage left when a child goes missing. It takes place in a distinctive London setting, and features a psychologist who has her own ways of
‘…dealing with the mess and pain inside other people’s heads…’
But what’s your view? Have you read Blue Monday? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 14 December/Tuesday 15 December – White Heat – M.J. McGrath
Monday 21 December/Tuesday 22 December – A Madras Miasma – Brian Stoddart
Monday 28 December/Tuesday 29 December – The Dead Pull Hitter – Alison Gordon